full of warmth, personality and camaderie… a joy

Opera

The year 1823 was a torrid one for Schubert.  Syphillis was taking hold of the bones in his body and the discomfort was immense.  A pain in his left arm forced him (temporarily) to give up the piano, and his near-month-long stay in hospital in June most likely included a course of mercury treatment that couldn’t have been anything but excruciating.  He spent most of the year musing, with increasing bitterness, on the cruel consequences of sexual relations, beginning with his final Singspiel, Die Verschworenen (The Conspirators), a light-hearted piece about the impossibility of abstinence.

The work is loosely based on Aristophanes play Lysistrata, a battle of the sexes.  A city is at war; the women are in revolt.  The females won’t make love until the males make peace and, in the Greek original, the play ends in feminist triumph.  But in Die Verschworenen the belligerant men give up their arms only after lightly humiliating their wives.  Was Schubert, perhaps, trying to settle some scores?

Die Verschworenen is widely regarded as Schubert’s best stab at the operatic form, easily the most dramatically viable and musically consistent of his 15 attempts, and it became hugely popular when it was finally staged in 1861, 33 years after the composer’s death.  It’s attractions are simple: they include a handsome overture, at least two very decent arias, a handy duet and several pretty choral interjections. Yet the simplicity is deceptive, and for Bampton Classical Opera to turn to it for its yearly educational venture was brave.

The result – a collaboration with a London girls’ school, Queen’s College – was intermittently scrappy and confused, yet still also a joy.  Few of the period opera companies, who spend so much time and effort trying to recover the original feel of a work through elaborate academic digging, come close to conjuring up the atmosphere of authenticity of these performances.  Schubert and his friends would surely have felt at home with Bampton’s small production (directed by Jeremy Gray) and tiny orchestra (conducted by Gilly French), so full of warmth, personality and camaderie, all charmingly fraying at the edges.

The young, raw voices were the highlight.  As the programme notes pointed out, Anna Gottleib was only 12 when she sang Barbarina at the premiere of Mozart’s Figaro, and it was a 13-year old, Ella Clayton, who stepped in when her classmate came down with a bug.  She sang the lead role of Isella with a clarity and confidence that was truly astonishing.  But the finest aria – the romance for Helene, a winsome newly-wed – was sung by the finest of the young singers, Alexandra Soiza, who performed with such a natural grace and naïve intensity that my only recording of the sung – by an older, fuller Elly Ameling – pales in comparison.

Igor Toronyi-Lalic